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Thus Spake Alan


“Insane? I was perfectly sane. I knew that the best place for a genius philosopher to hide out was an asylum. Switzerland, no less. Cool mountain air. Clears the passageways to the higher realms. The rest of the world is insane, or haven’t you noticed the news lately?”

I was having my favorite sandwich at Panera when I overheard this man in the corner booth, then noticed he was apparently talking to himself.

“Do you hear this guy?” I asked my girlfriend.

“Yeah,” she said, “sad, hmm? I mean, we all talk to ourselves from time to time, but not out loud at Panera.”

“Maybe I should ask if he needs help? Maybe he’s having an epileptic fit?”

“Maybe he’s just drunk. C’mon, we’ve got to get back to work.”

We picked up our trays to drop them off and as I passed, I looked at him directly in the eyes.

“And what may I answer for you, good sir?”

“I was just wondering if you were okay?”

“Okay? Ach, what charming vernacular passes for speech these days!”

“Alan, c’mon, let’s go,” Susan said, looking frightened by him.

“Don’t be frightened, milady. I’m not one of the criminally insane, you know. They are all in Washington, Moscow, London, Beijing, etc.”

“Excuse me,” I said, but it seemed you were referring to the philosopher Nietzsche, as in his last years in the asylum in Basel, Switzerland.”

He leaned back in his booth, smiling impishly, and said, “Referring? Indeed, I was. Are you a philosopher my good man?”

“Alan, c’mon!” Susan pressed.

Our workplace was just across the street. “Go on ahead, Susan, I’ll catch up.”

She turned and left.

“She’s mad at you now, you know,” the man said, “I apologize if I’ve frightened her. She’s frightened for you, not herself. Please sit, my fellow philosopher, allow me to assuage any concerns. Talking out loud to oneself in public is a bad habit I must amend if I am to continue living in this barbaric age.”

He shook his head. I couldn’t tell if it was weariness, disgust, or sadness. Or all three.

“Are you rehearsing for a play or something? Staying in character, you know?”

“Yes, I’m rehearsing for a play. Let’s go with that. A play about Friedrich Nietzsche in 21st century America troubling people on their lunch break in Panera by babbling aloud. Do you think it will be a successful play?”

“I would go see it. I majored in philosophy in college. Nietzsche was one of my favorites. That knowledge is little used now in my job as an insurance claims adjuster.”

“So, you did go insane just as he did?”

“No, of course not.”

“You’re working as an insurance claims adjuster?” he snickered. “You’ll be talking out loud to yourself soon enough.”

I felt insulted.

He sensed it and quickly reached over the table and poked me gently on the shoulder, smiling as he said, “I’m kidding! Insurance claims adjuster, why not? I would wager there are more women than men in that field, hence your comely lunch acquaintance? Ah, sanity, insanity. Waves come in; they go out. Perhaps you best run along now, lest the authorities catch you talking to me. I’m a wanted man, you know. Oh yes, they frown upon inmates checking themselves out of the asylum on their own personal recognizance. And yet it was surreptitiously and deftly accomplished by my anonymous benefactor who secured reservations, funds and identification papers in order for me to board a flight from Zurich to New York, then take a train to this quaint city of yours, Providence, and ensconce myself in one of your finer hostelries. All arranged in order for me to meet you here now, Alan.”

Now I felt a little alarmed as Susan had, that he very well might be dangerous.

Again, he sensed it, and again he said, “Kidding! Or am I?”

“Ok, you’re an actor and a stand-up comic?” I said, “this has been enjoyable and interesting, but I really do have to get back to work, and…” Just then, flashing lights appeared in the parking lot. The police.

“See what I mean?” he said, calmly. “Yes, you best abscond post haste. May I contact you again once I am out on bail?”

“I’ll be having lunch here tomorrow.”

“See you then, friend.”

I walked briskly across the street, then turned back to see two police officers usher him into their car.

The next day he was there as promised. Susan, when I told her he likely would be, opted to eat lunch at her desk.

He was well into a salad when I sat down with my coffee.

“Just coffee?” he asked

“Trying to lose a few,” I said.

“Once you’re done reading what I’m going to give you, you may lose your appetite permanently,” he said, carefully dabbing any salad residue from his voluminous moustache. Yes, just like the one in pictures of Nietzsche.

“What did they arrest you for?”

“What else? Speaking the truth. Oh, sure, it was cloaked in some cover-up about a fake passport and embezzled funds, but they really just want to shut me up. So, we must make haste Alan. I’m sorry, your last name?”

“Whitman.”

“No relation I assume?”

“To the poet? Not that I know of.”

“We must get together with him some time; I find his gift for language positively enthralling.”

“Get together? Okay,” I said, more convinced now he was likely a homeless delusional with a 19th century suit of clothes.

“Yes, Friedrich,” I said, humoring him, “it would be great to sit down with you and Walt Whitman. Hell, I’ve always wanted to meet Edgar Allan Poe too! Let’s invite him to the party.”

“Ah, poor Edgar. Medication, I told him, just get the right antidepressants! They’ve worked wonders for me!”

“They did not have antidepressant medication in the 19th century,” I said, “but why am I even —”

“I’m talking about when I saw him last week! We were hanging out in New York. I see by your expression your patience wears thin. Let me ask, then, before we part. You, my friend, are a writer as well as a student of philosophy are you not?”

“Well, that would be my dream job but – “

“But you think it would be impossible?”

“A little more possible than talking with Nietzsche at Panera about meeting Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, but yeah, highly unlikely it would ever pay the bills.”

I expected some pep talk about whatever you put your mind to, dream big, etc., but instead he just casually added, “You’re probably right. You must be exhausted at the end of the day after processing insurance claims. Serious writing would take more energy than you likely have. But before we go any further, let me pass on this most important bit of advice – don’t worry about where the writing will take you. It may be to an insane asylum,” and he chuckled and sipped his soda. “The thing is, it, like everything else, will take care of itself.”

“How do you mean?”

“You’re just a scribe Mr. Whitman. You may die leaving behind a crazy quilt collection of unfinished stories, journals, poems, etc., which will in all likelihood be tossed into the landfill. Or you may whip your oeuvre into shape and become one of those library shelf attention hogs with title after title by your name. Personally, I prefer the middle ground between those two like what happened to me. I knocked out some good stuff, but a reasonable amount, quality over quantity always, with little fanfare and of course much less money. Oh, and be sure to die before gaining any serious recognition and/or popularity. It definitely adds to the cachet.”

“Okay, I expect an old college buddy may show up at any time now to laugh his head off at having pranked me. So, let’s keep playing along a little. How is it you speak English so well? Not even a trace of a German accent.”

“Ach, Danke Schoen, I’ve been trying to lose it for 123 years! Sometimes, though, I wish I had just stayed a simple professor. Just while away my time in and out of the lecture halls, dispensing so much pablum, collecting a safe paycheck. Sort of the equivalent of insurance claim processing, my friend Alan. Einstein and Kafka, they worked in offices, nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Please don’t tell me you’ve gotten together with them?”

“Well, not Einstein, I mean not many can get into that club! But Franz and I have shared a pint or two over the decades. He’s a likable chap once you get to know him. But I was saying, had I just stayed a professor, I might have met a nice girl from Basel, settled down, maybe a kid or two, and a dog, you know. Let someone else suffer for philosophy and be a major influence upon the 20th century. But what’s done is done. Pop quiz. What play?”

“Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done is done. Macbeth.”

“Very good Mr. Whitman! How quickly you were able to look that up on your phone under the table. I will not have one of those infernal contraptions, I must remain off the grid, as it is said.”

“But you’ve been arrested? You have a record, you’re in a database now.”

“And so, I believe we come at long last to our purpose here together. What’s done is only done in one realm. We are never without a remedy. Quantum, string theory, multiverse, etc., so fashionable nowadays, isn’t it? And yet I sometimes think it’s all just an endless rewriting of the Upanishads for the audience of the day.”

  “I really don’t have time to get into that and Schopenhauer.”

He chuckled, “I understand. Neither do I, much as I’d love to. We must proceed to the task at hand. You say I was one of your favorites. Wouldn’t it be great then if the one and only Friedrich Nietzsche, incarnated somehow in 2024, had sought out a philosophy student working as an insurance claims adjuster, in order to pass onto him writings which have been hidden for 123 years? The writings I created during my so-called ‘insane’ period. The writings, dare I say, that might make you, Alan, the pre-eminent philosopher of your day once published. I would keep your day job, however.”

And he reached down under the table and plopped a large ancient looking satchel upon it.

“There it is! Everything I wrote from the time of the horse episode to the passing of this body you see before you on August 25, 1900. Read it, even edit it if you feel you are up to the task and try to have it published. But do so under your own name! I want no credit. That’s all I need is to open a new can of Nietzsche expert worms. Nothing against the experts, specific fields of study are innumerable, more power to the lepidopterologists for instance, but I need a rest.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle, “A rest? You’ve been dead for 123 years, no, wait, I’m not going to play along anymore. You’re witty, charming, and obviously intelligent but – “

“But the only question is will you accept these papers? It was a big effort to write them, keep them hidden from the asylum attendants, and then after my so-called ‘death’ in 1900, carry them with me through many countries, continents, hotels both grand and shabby, in a lonely nomadic trek through the 20th century and into the 21st until I found the person who was meant to claim ownership of them.”

Greed sprouted suddenly in my mind, briefly overruling rationality. The lost writings of Nietzsche auctioned at Sotheby’s for 5.6 million. Having come into the possession of an insurance claims adjuster in Providence Rhode Island after they were passed on to him by an insane street person who may have found them discarded in an abandoned building he’d been sleeping in and…no, stop.

“Ok, sure,” I said, thinking now this was no college prank but just some sad old man, well-read and with a penchant for drama, just wanting someone to listen to him. And yes, needing some serious meds.

“Merci beacoup! And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”

Moments later the police arrived again. They spotted the satchel on the table in front of me and one demanded, “Where is he?”

“He said he was going to the restroom.”

They dashed away and then, when I opened the satchel, there was a thick stack of lined paper, tied with a string, yellowed with age, crumbling to the touch, covered in soot and dust and drink spills and fingerprint smudges, and all totally, completely blank of any writing whatsoever.


About David Clear: “I am a New England writer; plainly a hobbyist rather than a professional. I had no formal writing education, but many great writing teachers, from office jobs to heartbroken relationships, and even convenience store clerks. I am retired, and I guess still seeking my great writing whale. My novel, Dreaming at the Speed of Sound, is available on Amazon at this link.”


Image created by Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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